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Q&A: Advice For Beginners From Mike Wydra

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As a beginning golfer that is addicted beyond obsession with this wonderful sport, the search for nuggets of knowledge and insight into how to become a better player has been a passion of mine.

I was extremely fortunate that early in my struggles, I became a student of Coach Mike Wydra, UCSD head golf coach and one of a select few inductees to the Golf Coach Association Hall of Fame.

I recently sat down with him to pick his prodigious golf brain on just HOW a beginning golfer should approach learning the game, something I feel that has been somewhat neglected in existing literature.

Neil Crutchfield: First thing I wanted to ask you, what should beginning golfers be most aware of?

Mike Wydra: Golf is a technique-oriented game and people who have good hand-eye coordination don’t always excel at it. Probably the worst student I ever had was an Olympic decathlete who was a fantastic athlete but who wasn’t a good listener. He wanted to do what he felt was correct and he wasn’t interested in the technique — he thought he could conquer it like he’d conquered everything else, and so he became really quite a bad player as a result. So once you understand that there is a very specific technique, that there is something that you need to do and you need to learn it and you’re enamored with that, that’s a big deal.

NC: It sounds like you have to be really open to being wrong for a long time before you get it right.

MW: It’s a very frustrating sport — if you can’t take a little failure, golf’s not for you. I think that’s why you see so many people in the game who are of high character. They’ve gone through that. They understand that they have to persevere and you’ll come out the other side a better golfer and maybe even a better person because of it.

NC: Along these lines, what mindset should a beginning gofer adopt when striking out to learn the game? What kind of expectations?

MW: I think they key to that is where you are in your life. Your age, your body size and type, your flexibility, your coordination those kinds of things. How quick, fast and strong are you? If your talent set is limited there’s certainly lots of things you can still do to be very good at it, you shouldn’t sell yourself short. It depends upon more than anything else on your goals, what you want to do, and how often you’re willing to practice to get it done.

Your expectations — I’m borrowing this from Hogan’s book — that anyone of average body type, size and intelligence and who goes about it seriously I think should have no problem breaking 80 within a relatively short time. I would say between a year and two is very reasonable.

Mike Wydra Advice

NC: What are common pitfalls that most beginning golfers encounter?

MW: Adults when they take the game up and they don’t want to embarrass themselves on the first tee. What happens to them then is that they get good enough at their long game quickly enough so that they could play if they had a short game, but actually they have just waited to embarrass themselves until they get to the green! It’s almost more frustrating to be right there and you can’t close the deal. So, all aspects of your game need to rise simultaneously.

NC: So you think there should be about a 50/50 split in practice between irons/woods and short game?

MW: I would say that the better you get the more time you spend within 50 yards of the green and certainly if you’re interested in scoring that’s a big, big part of what you need to do. You should get 50 yards away and say, “Oh boy, now I’m going to show everybody.” And most people get close to the green and say, “Oh no I hope I don’t mess it up.”

NC: Please don’t skull it!

MW: Exactly! So what I tell most people is that when you’re at the range you should hit half of your balls with your most lofted wedge and your driver and then the other half of the balls you should hit with all of your other clubs combined. And putting is another thing unto itself. The driver and the shortest wedge, those are the things you’ll need the most.

NC: At what point in a golfer’s learning process should they begin taking lessons? Getting fitted for a set of clubs?

MW: Well, it depends. Obviously there’s the monetary thing. But if you begin by playing poorly, if you just do what’s natural and you go out there and see how good you are before you get lessons, basically what happens is that you develop bad habits and then when the instructor gets you, the process is both getting the bad stuff out and the good stuff in at the same time which slows things down.

Club fitting — when you first get started you’re going to be very hard on your golf clubs. Your first set of clubs, it’s not that important to have really good clubs. A good piece of advice: It’s better to get a high-quality brand of club that’s used rather than something that’s shiny and new but maybe low quality.

NC: What should a beginning golfer look for in an instructor when looking for lessons?

MW: I think almost universally the best combination is someone who can play and someone who can teach. If you can find an instructor who you’ve checked out their resume and you know that they have played at a high level and they’ve taught at a high level, so you look at do they have successful students who have won tournaments? That’s the best possible combo.

NC: What are the most important principles to developing a solid, repeatable swing?

MW: All of the best players in the world have certain things in common. So if you see a Jim Furyk and you see a Rory McIlroy and you see the two swings and you think “Oh my god nothing could be more different than those two swings!” I would say that if you looked at them from halfway down in the downswing to halfway through the follow-through they look almost exactly the same. So if you look at videos and sequence photos and you see that one person’s doing one thing and that another person’s doing another thing, well then that’s style. But if you see them and everyone’s doing the same thing, that’s fundamental.

NC: What you say your top three to five most important fundamentals are?

MW: Grip, absolutely. There’s an old saying that occasionally you’ll see someone who’s a pretty good player who has a bad grip but you’ll never see someone who has a good grip that isn’t a good player.

Mike Wydra Grip

If I go out to dinner with someone that says they’re a golfer I say “Show me your grip” — I can tell them normally within a shot or two what their index is just by looking at it. They always seem shocked by that but really it tells a lot about what is going on –- nearly everybody puts their hands on the club either poorly or improperly and they’re making it harder for themselves.

Second –- everyone is a scooping bastard. I mean, if you’ve ever taken a shoveful of dirt and thrown it over your shoulder or flipped a burger on a grill your hand-eye coordination is telling you that ball that you just topped you need to get under the next one better — and that’s exactly the opposite of what you need to do.

And that speaks to the flat left wrist. If you’re going to be ahead of it the only way that you can square the club up with a good grip is to change your wrist as you go through –- to supinate your wrist. If we went to Torrey Pines today and we saw high-speed photos of everyone hitting the ball off the first tee, we might not see a perfect one all day. But if you went to the final round of a PGA Tour event and took high-speed photos you wouldn’t see one all day long that wasn’t absolutely perfect.

NC: How can beginning golfers learn how to learn in between lessons when our coach isn’t around?

MW: Basically, you have to be a good observer. The tendency is to have an emotional reaction to every shot you hit. You cannot be mad, you cannot be sad, you cannot be glad about anything. But to first say, “What did the club do the ball to make the ball do that?” and then to understand the physics of impact and secondly say, “What did my body do to make the club do what it just did?” If you just jump from the shot right back to your swing it can be very confusing to the beginning player. So you have to really stop and say, “Woah, what just happened there? I sliced it that much, the club was that open? OK now, what could I have done that could have made the club be that open?”

So be a good observer, understand the physics of impact and then once you know the cause and effect relationships you can make big, very valid adjustments quickly and easily.

NC: What parting advice would you like to give to my fellow newbie golfers?

MW: A little knowledge is dangerous. You should try to learn everything you can about the game, really become a student of the game so you’ll enjoy every practice session you have, you’ll get better every time you go out, and you’ll continue to learn and continue to improve really for your entire life. That’s the thing -– if you don’t know why you hit a bad shot, you’ll continue to hit the bad shots. So if you’re not interested in knowing as much as you can about the game, we’ll just have another beer, buy the newest driver that’s out there…

NC: Flirt with the cart girl…

MW: That whole kinda thing. A lot of people say, “Ahh I’m just out for the exercise.” What a load of bull that is. Everybody would give almost anything to get better but they’re afraid to take their ego and put it on the backburner. So if you really want to approach the game properly get some quality instruction and enjoy the process of getting better, and you’ll be a golfer for life.

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Neil Crutchfield picked up the sport of golf at the tender age of 34 in 2012 and has been completely infatuated ever since, much to the chagrin of his wife and bank account. Currently, he is a 11 and working hard to get down to being a single-digit handicapper, with the ultimate goal of being scratch.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Nimrod

    Jul 25, 2013 at 6:11 am

    Man I wish I could’ve been breaking 80 after a year and a half

  2. marc james

    Jul 22, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Awesome read. He gives lessons at the range that’s only 5 minutes away from me! Small world. I’ve witnessed him giving lessons to junior players and has a very calm vibe about him. Very nice guy from what I observed.

    • Neil

      Jul 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm

      I’m there pretty much every day – and yeah he’s a cool dude. If you take lessons tell him you saw this article. 🙂

  3. naflack

    Jul 21, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    whats the best way to get your wife to play good golf?

    always leave room for optimism by putting it off another year.

  4. Austin

    Jul 20, 2013 at 6:59 am

    would be interested in hearing/seeing his explanation for a proper grip. thanks.

    • yo!

      Jul 20, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      well, you have the vardon, interlocking, baseball, furyk grip, and they can be strong, weak or neutral. everything else is “bad”. oh, and if you’re not jim furyk, the furyk grip is bad. 🙂

    • Neil

      Jul 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      Near as I can tell it’s pretty much what Hogan espouses in his book, if you have a copy handy.

  5. J

    Jul 19, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Way to represent SD

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Instruction

Davies: The Trail Elbow In The Downswing

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In this video, I discuss the role of the trail elbow in the downswing. I also share some great drills to help golfers deliver the trail elbow correctly, which will help improve distance and contact.

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The 3 different levels of golf practice

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“I would have practiced as hard, but I would have made my practice more meaningful. I would have worked more on my short game and putting. I would’ve done a lot more drills to make the practice more meaningful, and I would’ve added pressure to the practice as much as possible.” — Lee Westwood

Now here’s the rub. Practice is not monolithic! I approach practice as having three different, distinctive and separate curriculum and criteria.

  • Level 1: Basic
  • Level 2: Advanced
  • Level 3: Extreme

Basic Practice (Level 1) by definition is “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.” Basically, it’s doing the same thing over and over again to get better at it. My favorite skill that requires practice is the 76-yard “flighted wedge.” I do it, and I recommend it be done at every range practice session. Additionally, I identify and then practice as many different “skills” that are required to hit different golf shots. I have found that a non-pressurized environment is the best way to practice in a basic model.

It goes without saying that golf is not played in a pressure-free environment, so basic practice doesn’t help us play golf. The prime objective of Level 2 Practice (Advanced Training) is to take what you do in Basic Practice to the golf course.

First, create on-course situations that require you to hit the shots you have practiced. There should be rewards for demonstrations of competence, and there should be consequences for demonstrations of incompetence

“When you practice, try to find a situation to fit the shot you’re trying to practice.” — Ben Hogan

For example, a major problem is the unevenness of the lies you will encounter during play as opposed to the lies you used for your drills. From marginal to extreme, lies are difficult to replicate on the practice tee. So, play a round of golf and move the ball into the most undesirable lie that is very close to where you are.

Another example would be duplicating the creativity that is sometimes required during actual play. The prime example of that would be the sensation of “being in-between clubs.” I would suggest that you play an occasional round of golf using only half of your clubs. Take two wedges instead of four. Take only the “odd” or “even” numbered irons. Look at not taking the driver, or not taking all of your fairway clubs. I have not taken my putter, which forced me putt with my sand wedge!

A third example would be to play a round of golf and deliberately miss every green in regulation. Should your ball accidentally finish on the green in regulation just move it off into the rough, a bunker or whatever else could use the extra attention. You can create games where your opponent moves your ball off the green into something that would be advantageous to him.

Level 2 Practice is conducted on the practice ground as well as on the course. What I do and recommend is to take each of the shots, skills and drills used in Level 1 and add some accountability to the range experience. I have my students and clients use a “Practice Book” to schedule activities and to keep track of improvement.

Author Note: I will send you a sample practice book page that many of my players actually use. Request it at edmyersgolf@gmail.com.

Please be advised that Level 2 Practice can feature games, wagering or other forms of friendly competitions because they should only activate the lesser emotions of irritation, annoyance, anticipation, anxiousness, joy, pleasure and disappointment. Dealing with these feelings in practice will help you recognize and deal with the minor stresses experienced by most recreational golfers.

Stress is the major cause of “CHOKING.”

Stress, by definition “is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Stress can ruin our ability to perform when we experience the major emotions such as fear, anger, shame, humiliation, euphoria, ridicule, betrayal, doubt and/or disbelief.

Level 3 Practice (Extreme Preparation) is on-course training sessions best suited for very serious competitive golfers. The more a player is able to compete in a simulated or controlled environment that accurately replicates the actual “pressures” that produce the kind of stresses that can effect performance, the better the player will perform when stressed in actual tournaments or events. Please be advised that Extreme Practice DOES NOT feature games, gambling or “friendly” competitions. They don’t control the conditions of play sufficiently to replicate the type of pressure that would induce “stress.”

“Simulation, which  is a technique (not a technology) to replace and amplify real experiences with guided ones, often “immersive” in nature, that evoke or replicate substantial aspects of the real world in a fully interactive fashion.” For many years now, the medical profession has used simulations to train doctors, the military has used simulations to prepare troops for the realities of the battlefield and aviation has used simulators to train pilots. Simulating has the added benefits of being cost and time effective while producing verifiable results.

If it’s possible for airlines to replicate every possible scenario that a pilot could experience in the cockpit by using simulations, then why isn’t it possible to replicate situations, and subsequent emotional responses, that a competitive golfer could experience on the golf course? Let me give you an example of what I mean.

“I got nervous all the time, as nervous as the next guy. It’s just that I caught myself before it became destructive.” Jack Nicklaus

Recent events at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play gives us some evidence of the destructiveness of uncontrolled emotions. Justin Thomas said that he couldn’t get the thought out of his mind of becoming the No. 1-ranked player in the world should he defeat Bubba Watson in the semi-finals, which he failed to do.

“I haven’t had such a hard time not thinking about something so much,” Thomas said. “And that really sucked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest.”

Then there was Ian Poulter being told that with his win over Louis Oosthuizen he had earned a spot in this years’ Masters tournament only to be told 10 minutes before his next match that he had not actually secured the coveted invitation. With elation, joy and satisfaction jerked away and replaced with disappointment, and possibly anger, the Englishman went out and got whipped by Kevin Kisner 8 & 6!

I concede that Justin Thomas’ and Ian Poulter’s situations were so unique that simulation-based practice and preparation techniques may not have been available to them, but now they both must know that their performance was effected negatively by mental stresses. And with that knowledge they may want to get tougher mentally. Level 3 Practice does that!

Not all that long ago, I was approached by a PGA Tour veteran for some on-course, one-on-one training. He was experiencing severe “choking” in pressurized short-game situations. So I took him out on the course and we replicated the exact shots he had problems with in the past. He demonstrated that he could perform each and every shot in a stress-free environment. We went into a “low-stress” training environment and his performance began to suffer. Then, at his urging to get “real,” we went into a “high-stress” practice mode and he melted down. Without going into details, he became so angry that not only couldn’t he hit golf shots, he tried to run me down with the golf cart as he retreated to the safety of his car.

Now, that’s not the end of the story. A few hours later, after some soul searching, he apologized for his lack of self-control and acknowledged that he had recognized the early signs of stress growing internally as we worked. We went back out onto the course and got back to work.

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Winning Ways: Here’s what it takes to become a winner in Junior Girls golf

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Every competitive golfer strives to win, and I want to help them achieve their goals. Recently, I wrote a story highlighting the statistics behind winning in junior boys golf, and how they can do it more often. Now, we set out to examine the data on winning in junior girls golf, and provide ways they can improve. The data is based on an analysis of tournament results from all events during the 2017 year from the Junior Tour of Northern California. We then asked stats guru, Peter Sanders, Founder of ShotByShot.com, to provide the stats related to the winning scoring numbers that we found. Finally, we discuss ways that juniors can practice building skills and work towards becoming tournament winners.

The Winning Scores

In 2017 the Junior Tour of Northern California held 26 tournaments with 850+ members. According to our data collection based on information available on the website, the average girl’s tournament course measured 6145 yards. The average winning score for girls was 146 (36 holes), or 73 per round. Ten of the 22 tournaments where won with scores of 144 or better and the low 36 holes total was a whopping 133! In the data collection we also collected the average 10th place scores girls. The average 10th place score for girls was 159 or 79.5.

The Winning Stats

We provided the numbers to statistics expert Peter Sanders. Peter’s company has been providing Strokes Gained analysis for golfers for the last 29 years. Peter is the founder of ShotByShot.com, a website that provides golfers at all levels with Strokes Gained analysis, pinpoints specific strengths and weaknesses and highlights improvement priorities. Since the launch of ShotByShot.com in 2005, Peter has collected over 317,000 rounds. Accordingly, Peter has agreed to share the numbers, below, for a typical female player who averages 73. There are two important points to consider when reviewing these statistics:

  1. In order to have a complete picture of the puzzle that is golf, one must consider the ERRORS, or lack thereof, that play such an important role in scoring at every level. Even the 650+ PGA Tour stats ignore these important miscues. Shot By Shot has included them in their analysis from the beginning and they are highlighted in the infographics below.
  2. The data provided represents only tournament rounds. As such it will primarily represent the high school and college programs that use ShotbyShot.com

Infographics Created by Alexis Bennett

The Winning Preparation

Junior girls are encouraged to use these stats as a benchmark against their own performance to determine where they might need to improve against the “typical 73 player.” After identifying gaps in their game, they can then create practice plans to help improve. For example, a junior might notice they have more 3-putts than the model. To improve, they could work put more time into practice, as well as playing games on the golf course like draw-back and 2-putt.

  • Drawback is a game where after your first putt, you draw the second putt one putter length away from the hole. This often changes a shorter putt (> 2 feet) to a putt of between 3.5 – 5 feet. This putts significantly more pressure on your putting.
  • You may also play Two-Putt, a game where when you reach the green, you (or your playing competitor) tosses the ball away from the hole. You must 2-putt from that spot to move to the next hole (even if it takes a couple attempts!).

Others reading this article might find that they don’t hit enough greens. Improving this area will require more consistent strikes, which may require further technical development and block practice, as well as working on the golf course. To start, I would recommend that every junior implement the yardage rule. The yardage rule works like this; figure out the distance to the very back of the green. For example, this number may be 157. Then figure out what club ALWAYS flies 157, which might be 6-iron. Then choose 7-iron for the shot. This way your best shot will not fly the green, your average shot will likely be in the middle of the green and your less-than-perfect shot will hopefully end up on the front of the green.

During practice rounds, play competitive games with yourself to sharpen your ability to hit greens. For example, if you normally hit 7 greens per round, in practice your goal might be 9. You would track your results over a month and then see your progress.

Beyond building individual skills, like hitting greens or working on putting, junior golfers need times to play competitive rounds on their home golf courses. Ideally, these rounds are played against other people with similar skills and done under tournament like conditions with consequences (loser buys winner a coke or cleans their golf clubs). Playing hundreds of rounds at your home golf course under these conditions gives you a unique opportunity to sharpen your game, learn your tendencies and build skills such as endurance and mental toughness. Most importantly, it teaches you to win and shoot under par!

Please also keep in mind building these skills may take months (or even years). In my own personal experience, when I set out to improve my birdies per round, it took nearly 4 months and 75+ rounds and significant practice to begin to see a change. Depending on your schedule and access to resources like a golf course and instructor, some changes might take a year or more. Regardless, don’t ever worry; building a solid foundation in golf will always lead to rewards!

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